Today, we went on a tour with En Vía, an organisation that offers small interest-free loans to women in villages around Oaxaca. Samantha, a young woman from New Jersey who’s lived in Oaxaca for two years now, took us to visit the women who would be receiving loans from our tour fees.
Some quick facts about En Vía and microfinance
(Information from website and the tour)
- In Mexico, interest rates on loans average around 70% and can soar up to more than 100%
- En Vía uses 100% of its tour fees first towards interest-free micro-loans
- One tour fee will contribute to a loan for 2.5 women
- The tours allow you to meet and learn about the women whose independent businesses will receive your donated loan
- Women must apply for a loan and take a mandatory business class to receive it, but no one is turned down
- En Vía also runs a number of classes and workshops for the recipients of loans in business, finances, marketing, and branding and runs English classes that are free to all community members
- They also work with Tierra del Sol in Tlacochahuaya to provide women in the program with education on the environment and sustainable living
- En Vía believes that by re-directing and promoting sustainable tourism to communities that need it the most, tourism can have a long-term positive effect, and promote a cultural exchange and sharing of ideas on both sides of the relationship
We met at the Instituto Cultural, which is this lovely complex with a lush courtyard where expats and volunteers convene to learn Spanish and take cultural workshops. It looked as if there was a wedding being set up with white tin buckets and watering cans overflowing with fuschia flowers and garlands hung in verticle strings from tent ceilings. I wondered if it was being prepared the wedding party from the plane. Though we hadn’t left for our tour yet, it did spark in me the kind of contrast of reasons for travel: to luxuriously celebrate, or to give back. Or often both, within the span of the same trip.
We met the other couple we would be touring with. As we were waiting, we chatted a bit, and the other couple – J and T – mentioned they had just run into a girl, who was taking Spanish lessons at the centre, who was from the Bahamas, but happened to go to university in their hometown in Canada. I asked which town it was and guess what – it was London! J even volunteers at the library. Small, small world.
So we Londoners (and B) headed out to Díaz Ordaz, a village of about 2000 near Tlacolula, the town famous for its vast Sunday market and its mezcal. Because it is so close to Tlacolula, Díaz Ordaz does not have its own market, making it particularly difficult for women to earn an income and sell their products.
We first visited Blanca, who makes natural salves, balms, and ointments out of her home. She took us into her yard, filled with laundry and medicinal plants. She told us how she makes her products and what they are used for, and had us smell and touch the ingredients she had growing in her yard.
As we spoke, a little old lady hobbled into the yard. She was very wrinkled and small and took turns shaking all our hands. I thought she was just a neighbour coming to drop in, but it turned out she was the next business woman we were to meet. Her name was Esperenza, and she took us to her farm, which she runs with her husband.
Their house was two rooms and one appeared to be exclusively for their year’s stock of corn. Esperenza used to handmake tortillas and sell them door-to-door throughout the village. Sitting hunched in front of the fire flattening corn masa in her hands and then carrying her wares around in the heat was hardly an easy occupation, and so her and her husband invested in some chickens, finding it not only less taxing, but more profitable. Esperenza’s husband (Gabriel, I believe), was very talkative, and both were happy to answer all of our questions and seemed eager to talk about their business and their plans. Gabriel even released the chickens for us, and the turkeys they were preparing to sell for those preparing traditional moles on the fast-approaching Día de los Muertos.
Next, we met Adelina, who took us to a house she and her family and friends had built for her out of a concrete floor and corrugated tin. Her husband had had a work-related accident, and so they had all pitched in to help her move her family into this new home. Previously, they had lived with his parents, but her income alone could not provide from them. She admitted it’s been a harder haul, but it is more tranquil and having her own business – selling sandwiches at the local school – has given her more freedom and confidence, something she aims to share with her children, especially her daughters. After a year term, the position will be passed on to another woman in the community, but Adelina spoke with excitement about how she is determined to keep working and helping to support her family, even though her husband is now back at work, so that her 13-year-old daughter can stay in school and get an education. It was inspiring to see people living with what we would perceive as so little really see clearly the important things in life – family, independence, health, education, personal growth, freedom – even while admitting it can be a difficult life.
We priveleged few often forget that for some people, these things aren’t perceived as a birth right, and that many in the world struggle day in and out for them – and see that struggle as worth the rewards. In a perfect world, no one would or should have to overcome the odds to achieve basic human needs and rights, but it is inspiring to witness their appreciation for so much that we often take for granted.
We mentioned what a great example she was setting for her daughters, and she was flattered and thanked us, but she also firmly agreed. Another funny thing about us “modern women”: we find it so difficult to take a compliment. Adelina acknowledged and was confident in her powerful role as a woman and mother, and was proud.
Teotitlán de Valle
Next, we went to Teotitlán, a village known for its weaving. Nature called, and so we first made a stop to pee at a church. For some reason this struck me as funny, particularly since there was a wedding going on. Don’t worry – we didn’t barge in on the ceremony to request a washroom. There were some toilets out back for public use at a couple of pesos. And one for the priest...
That eerie, midnight-travelling-circus song I first heard in Oaxaca Cathedral played again. I meant to ask Samantha if she knew what it was, but then it stopped and the tune left my head and so I couldn’t convey the song I was searching for.
Graciela met us with her adorable son, and we visited her weaving workshop she has run with her husband since they were newlyweds. They seemed a delightful family. The father doted on his son and appeared very supportive of his wife, piping in here and there as she explained their business and the tradition of weaving in the area. We had spoken earlier with Samantha about how the husbands reacted to the loans being obtained through their wives, or having their wives run their own businesses. We had assumed the culture in rural Mexico would promote a very machismo ideal of manhood and heap equally traditional expectations on their women. But Samantha said that though she imagines there are women who never approach them for loans because of these reasons, they have had few if any problems with husbands’ involvement. Most are supportive and encouraging, and realise that their wives’ involvement in business and earning income for their family can only be a positive thing. I felt a bit silly for automatically assuming this would be an obstacle, but even in so-called advanced areas of Canada and the United States, there are still many (men and women alike) who have strong ideas of the “proper” roles for women.
Then I tried my hand at the loom. Apparently I’ve forgotten all B taught me in my childhood, and everything learned from my brief role as a weaver in my fourth grade Medieval Fair. (Photos by J and T, our tour buddies!)
The next weaving shop we stopped at, the woman we were schedule to meet wasn’t there, which was unfortunate because it meant her and her two partners – Graciela and Martina, who we were to meet later – wouldn’t receive their loans this time around.
Here’s how it works:
- Women receiving loans are set up in a buddy system of sorts
- To get a loan, you need to refer two other women to the program; you are accountable to each other for taking the required steps for receiving the loan, and for paying back the loan
- As part of the process, each woman presents their business to the tourists funding their loan
- If one woman does not show up at the appointed date, all three women miss out on the loan this time around (of course, this is barring unforeseen circumstances – if a woman knows she cannot attend, she should let En Vía know, or have one of her parterned women pass on the message)
- All three women are also affected if one does not pay back her loan within the alloted time (of course, this is also barring unforeseen circumstances – if a woman knows she cannot pay, she can leave collateral with En Vía or work out an alternative ahead of the payment due date)
- All three women are charged fees for unpaid or overdue loan payments
- They didn’t always use this system; En Vía found that when the women were accountable to others in their community, rather than just to themselves (and En Vía), they were more motivated to participate in the program as required and to pay back loans on time
So that was a bit disappointing, as we felt a bit like we were wasting the other two women’s time. Nonetheless, Martina – the third woman and the daughter of the missing woman – took us to her house for lunch and told us about her and her husband’s weaving business.
Martina and her husband, Manuel, specialise in making woven bags. That big rug-like object is actually leather, a large sheath of animal skin. They talked about preparing it for the handles of bags, about dying and spinning wool. Their workshop was filled with interesting objects.
Our real purpose in our visit, however, was lunch. We met Martina’s mother-in-law who spoke Zapotec and greeted us to the home she shares with Martina and Manuel. They showed us the different fruits growing in the garden – large grapefruits, pomegranates used for dye, and something like a kumquat crossed with a small peach that we ate ripe right off the plant.
I’ve already written about our relaxed and delicious lunch. We chatted in a mix of Spanish and English, Samantha translating some, other comments simply being inferred or guessed at. I felt that while in Mexico I could at least understand enough of most of what people said to me, but now back in Canada I can’t. It’s amazing how rapidly immersion in a language allows you to pick it up, and how rapidly it fades once you are back in the English-speaking world.
Then it was back to Oaxaca after the, long tiring day, carrying with us natural salves, woven bags, and Samantha cradling an enormous pumpkin in her lap, courtesy of Manuel and Martina.
Not sure what we have planned for the evening, but my guess is likely some cerveza!
You can learn more about En Vía here.
I’ll be honest, I had some trepedation about the tour to begin with, not wanting to engage in the somewhat trendy but not-necessarily-helpful concept of “poverty tourism.” But, first, these were hardly slums we were visiting, and knowing that our donation would go directly to these women, and help them build sustainable businesses, was comforting. We weren’t just going to gawk at their lifestyles – we were going to learn about the women and families that make up the communities you might not necessarily encounter on your average holiday. Though I feel grateful for the life I had been given, the lives I did witness didn’t seem impovershed or hopeless – like something they had to escape. I didn’t feel my life was better than theirs, only more comfortable. My wariness vanished when I saw clearly that this wasn’t about marvelling at poverty, it was about meeting new people.
Have you ever participated in charitable tourism? Have you ever participated in slum tourism? Thoughts?